Fire at Burwell - 1727
Written by Jean Matthews who, like me, is a Gt Gt Gt Grand daughter of
Stephen PALMER & Maria DeSILVA - and my 3rd cousin.]
Contributed to the Peterborough Family History Society Journal in about 1980
- The following is an extract from the Parish Registers of Burwell (Cambs) :-
"At about 9 o’clock on the evening of September 8th 1727, fire broke out in a barn,
in which a great number of persons were met together to see a puppet show.
In the barn were a great many loads of new light straw. The barn was thatched with
straw which was very dry, and the inner roof was covered with old dry cobwebs, so that
the fire like lightening flew around the barn in an instant. There was but one small
door, which was close nailed up, and could not easily be broken down. When it was
opened, the passage was so narrow and everybody so impatient to escape that the door
was presently blocked up, and most of those that did escape, which was but very few,
were forced to crawl over the bodies of those that lay in a heap by the door.
Seventy six perished immediately and two more died of their wounds
within two days.
The fire was occasioned by the negligence of a servant who set a candle and lanthorne
in or near a heap of straw which lay in the barn. The servant’s name was Richard
Whittaker, from the parish of Hadstock in Essex, who was tried for the fact at an
assize held in Cambridge on 27 March 1728 but was acquitted."
A book entitled "The Burwell Fire" gives a firsthand report from a survivor; he said
that many more people than the barn would accommodate wanted to see the show.
Therefore, when the maximum number of people were inside, the door was nailed shut
to prevent rough people in the crowd from coming in. Access to the show was through
a near door, into an empty space behind the new straw. At the front of the barn,
within the great doors, two horses belonging to the puppeteer were in the care of
Three young children from my family died in the fire, and as I continued my research,
I discovered a newspaper report dated 19th Feb. 1774 [47 years after the fire] - it
reads as follows:
"Deathbed Confession; a report reveals that an old man who died a few days ago at a
village near Newmarket who just before his death seemed very unhappy. He said he had
a burden to disclose. He then confessed that he had set fire to the barn at Burwell
on Sept. 8th 1727, when no less than eighty persons unhappily lost their lives. He
said he was an Ostler at the time, and that having an antipathy to the puppet showman,
was the cause of his committing that diabolical action attended with such dreadful
No name was published in the article, and a short note in the "Fenland Notes and Queries" supposes
that Richard Whittaker was wrongly acquitted, but suggests delirium
as he was nearing death.
© Jean Matthews.
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This page created 10 August 2001
& amended 21:06 22:36 02/11/2013